THE JOURNEY BEGAN, like so many frustrating and ultimately fruitless quests, with the 2019 Florida State Seminoles.
Florida State had opened that season by blowing a 31-13 lead to Boise State, and in the aftermath, offensive coordinator Kendal Briles pinned at least a portion of the blame on one of the most meaningless bits of jargon in coachspeak: Momentum. Florida State lost it, couldn’t get it back, and the football gods delivered the Seminoles a crushing defeat.
I wasn’t buying it.
“Momentum is not a real thing,” I tweeted, an unassailable statement of fact I was sure others would accept, too.
Instead, here’s a sample of the responses:
“Momentum is definitely a real thing in football!!!”
“It appears you’re not that bright.”
“Trash take. … Delete your account.”
From there, convincing the world that momentum is an illusion became my personal crusade. It’s a fight I’m losing badly.
As we dive deeper into the 2021 bowl season, there will undoubtedly be an endless chorus of pundits suggesting a big win generates momentum for 2022 (a theory Texas disproves annually). During games, momentum will be up for grabs, swing wildly, be a little in one team’s favor or all in another’s. It’s the most overused term in sports, as former Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Shirley noted in a column way back in 1985, yet momentum’s presence is so ubiquitous that not only will the announcers, coaches and players acknowledge it but a casual fan sitting on the couch will feel it, too.
This is why disproving momentum is so difficult. Ask 100 people to define it and you’ll likely get 100 different answers, but absolutely everyone who has spent any time around sports innately understands the sensation. Show people all the data you want — and there is a lot of it (here, here and here, for example) — and it won’t compare with that tingling sensation in their gut, that adrenaline rush as a team marches down the field for a winning TD, that absolute certainty that destiny is on their side. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, you know momentum when you feel it.
“There’s an electricity to the thing,” Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach said. “And guys are so tuned in on the sideline, it’s like everybody can finish everybody else’s sentences.”
It’s such a universally accepted phenomenon, in fact, that I’m forced to consider an unthinkable possibility: What if I’m wrong? I needed an answer, and so I went looking for momentum, finding small clues in increasingly unlikely places, from a backup QB to a Catholic priest, from Aristotle to Buddhist monks, from an expert on déjà vu to an Australian linguist to, well, Mike Leach.
Is momentum real? The short answer is maybe. The longer answer — well, get ready to dive headfirst into Pandora’s box.
BEFORE GOING FURTHER, let’s define our terms. If momentum indeed exists, what exactly is it? Merriam-Webster offers one answer: “Momentum describes the motion of an object or system equal to the product of its mass and its velocity.”
This is not particularly helpful unless we’re talking about Jordan Davis attacking an A-gap. That’s mass in motion. A pick-six in the fourth quarter of a 35-21 game is something altogether different.
“It’s a catch-all,” said Adam Amin, a play-by-play broadcaster for NFL and Major League Baseball games on Fox. “We’re probably not even using the word correctly, but at some point, someone, somewhere looked at a 20-0 run in a basketball game and was like, ‘What does this feel like to me? It feels like an unstoppable motion. OK, that’s momentum.'”
Whoever started the trend, it caught on. ESPN Stats & Information reviewed broadcasts from four Saturdays of college football games in 2020 and 2021 and found the word “momentum” was used 93 times across 21 games — or about 4.5 times per broadcast. But even that doesn’t accurately reflect the term’s indiscriminate use. In last month’s Auburn–South Carolina showdown, a game in which the Gamecocks really did appear to benefit from momentum, erasing a 14-0 deficit to win 21-17, the term was used just once, while “momentum” was mentioned four times during the broadcast of Appalachian State–Troy, a game the Mountaineers won 45-7.
According to the broadcasters, momentum happens more often near halftime (there are more mentions in the second and third quarter than in the first and fourth), and it tends to cluster (once it’s mentioned, it’s likely to be discussed again within a few plays). More than half the mentions ESPN tracked came when the score margin was 10 or more, including as high as 35. It’s used to describe big plays, but also as an explanation for a lack of them. It’s used to explain recent success, but almost always with an implied suggestion that future events will follow the same trendline.
The invocation of the mythical force of momentum is so commonplace, it’s colloquially been given its own human avatar, Uncle Mo. And old Uncle Mo is a fickle son of a gun. Does momentum shift in a football game with each touchdown or only really important ones? If a team kicks a field goal after a drive stalls at the 5-yard line, do those three points create momentum or does the defense get the momentum for preventing a touchdown? And once this theoretical momentum is established, how long can it last? Uncle Mo’s answers change constantly.
Dr. David Caldwell, a professor of linguistics at the University of South Australia who has studied language in sports, including momentum, suggests the malleability of the term is actually its core value.
“Sports are fundamentally base and gladiatorial,” he said. “You have a winner and a loser, thumbs up or thumbs down. And from there, our language is highly complex, and something like momentum as an abstract noun gets used because it can signify lots of different goals across sports.”
For all momentum’s vagary, Caldwell said it typically includes two fundamental tenets: a feeling of force enacted upon a body, and a direction in which that force is moving. It’s both a sensation and a physical push in a new direction.
Now we have two concrete questions we can ask: Is that feeling caused by a real chemical reaction in our brains, or is it a figment of our imagination? And if it’s real, does that change in brain chemistry fundamentally impact future outcomes?
That should be easy enough to determine, right?
Caldwell laughed. He has gone down the rabbit hole already, skimming through a recent paper he had written, looking for a quote he thinks might help, before striking upon another idea. Momentum, he said, reminds him a bit of Aristotle’s theory of telos, which suggests all humans have some innate drive to fulfill their potential — a “supreme end to man’s endeavor” — and perhaps momentum is a sensation of alignment between that drive and one’s current actions, telling us we’re on the right path.
I’m hopeful my telos won’t just amount to explaining momentum on Twitter, but I’m dubious I’ll find answers that eluded Aristotle.
BRAM KOHLHAUSEN BELIEVES in momentum. This is not surprising. If momentum launched an advertising campaign, Kohlhausen would be its Energizer Bunny or Jake from State Farm.
Kohlhausen was a walk-on quarterback at TCU from 2012 through 2015, a career backup until his final game. A rash of injuries and suspensions left TCU with a makeshift offense for its date with Oregon in the 2016 Alamo Bowl, and Kohlhausen was put in charge.
“I looked around at one point and was like, my X [receiver] is a freshman,” Kohlhausen recalled. “My Y is a freshman. My H is a redshirt freshman. My Z is a redshirt freshman.”
The result was predictable. Oregon led 31-0 at the half.
But when all hope seemed lost, Uncle Mo paid TCU a visit. Oregon’s starting QB, Vernon Adams Jr., got hurt. TCU kicked a field goal on its first possession of the second half and scored a touchdown on the next. Oregon fumbled the ensuing kickoff, TCU recovered, then scored again, pulling to within 14.
“When we started scoring touchdowns, we started buying in, and it was easier to move the ball,” Kohlhausen said. “And Oregon, they lost confidence. They’re doubting themselves. They’re tightening up. It was like we were invincible.”
This isn’t revisionist history. This is how Kohlhausen felt in the moment. Sure enough, the Horned Frogs scored twice more in the fourth quarter, and in the third overtime, Kohlhausen ran for his fourth TD of the night to secure the victory — the fourth-biggest comeback win in NCAA history and still the biggest deficit overcome in a bowl game.
“You could feel it in the air,” he said. “You could feel it with the players and coaches. I’m a full believer. And that helps when you’re down 31-0.”
It might be easy to suggest it wasn’t momentum that won the game for TCU, that instead it was Adams’ injury or a fluky fumble or a veteran QB relying on four years of scout-team reps and delivering. Make a slight change to any of those things and no one would remember the 2016 Alamo Bowl.
Indeed, there’s ample data suggesting momentum isn’t predictive of some new direction for the game but rather a generic description of events that have already occurred. ESPN Stats & Info tracked college football play-by-play data back to 2004 and found approximately 4,800 plays that changed a team’s win probability by at least 20 percentage points (i.e., significant momentum swings). If momentum is real, we might assume the team that gained momentum in those situations would win more often than game conditions would predict. Instead, we find their actual win percentage is just a tick less than the expected outcome, which might be a fluke or might signify that the team that was losing before the big play was likely the inferior team all along and the big play was the fluke.
Momentum likely comes with a healthy dose of recall bias, too. With two minutes remaining and a nine-point lead over rival NC State, North Carolina had a 99.9% win probability on Nov. 26. But NC State followed with a 64-yard TD pass, a recovered onside kick, and another TD three plays later to win 34-30. The win probability chart, which was shared on social media after the game, was a literal graphic representation of momentum, right? Not exactly. We remember the epic comeback only because of how rare it is. We forget the 999 other times when the prediction matched the outcome.
So no, the evidence doesn’t back up Kohlhausen’s belief in momentum, despite his singular example.
But what about that feeling of invincibility? That, he said, was undeniable.
“We believed we had the ability to make this comeback,” he said. “It’s like a religion, where you gain more followers as you go. The coaches open up the playbook. Everybody feels loose. You keep gaining positive feedback.”
Belief. Faith. Religion. Perhaps Kohlhausen was onto something.
FATHER NATE WILLS is conditioned to be open-minded about forces he can’t see, touch or measure. It’s part of the job description as the team chaplain for Notre Dame football.
It’s perhaps no surprise then, Wills is a full believer in momentum, and yes, he sees some real parallels with faith.
“The definition of faith is the assent of the intellect and the will to God,” Wills said. “In that sense, it’s similar. It involves people humbling themselves to say, ‘We can do this together, and believe collectively together.'”
If a man who converses with both God and Marcus Freeman on a regular basis believes in the power of momentum, who am I to argue?
“I don’t think it’s magical, though,” Wills said. “It often feels magical in the moment, but like belief, it doesn’t happen in the moment. It’s a process, and it involves a lot.”
A lot of time and work and patience and belief — those are keys to building a strong relationship with God and, according to Wills, also to lassoing the intangible power of momentum. And the more we think about this, the more it seems as if he’s saying exactly what we’ve believed all along: Momentum isn’t something that’s just floating around in the universe. It’s simply a catch-all term to describe good players doing good things they were always capable of accomplishing.
Wills said he really did see small miracles in every blitz pickup Kyren Williams made in Notre Dame’s win over Clemson last year, but he’s not suggesting those powerful forces abandoned the Irish when Clemson won the rematch a month later. It’s a paradox. Perhaps God and Uncle Mo both work in mysterious ways. More likely, Wills said, players make plays, and the best ones are ready when a good opportunity presents itself.
“Most games, like most faiths, don’t depend on extraordinary moments,” Wills said. “Most wins happen because guys are willing to show up and grind it out and be there. And I think that’s the same thing with faith. We want those lightning bolt moments in our lives, where we tangibly feel the presence of God, but for most people, it doesn’t work like that. More often than not, it’s that they just choose to believe.”
In fact, the more Wills thinks about it, the best comparison for momentum isn’t faith. It’s love. Love is ineffable and abstract and present only when our heart is open to it.
“It’s ethereal,” he said. “Could you quantify for me your love? Absolutely not. There’s something about that, too, in football, which is maybe one of the reasons we love it so much.”
FATHER WILLS MIGHT NOT want to quantify love, but Dr. Helen Fisher has made a career of it.
Fisher is an anthropologist at the Kinsey Institute and author of the book, “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.” She has used MRIs and brain scanners to study the brain’s response to love — and she thinks momentum might look pretty similar. More importantly, she said, it’s absolutely a real thing.
“Anything that you feel, something is happening in the brain,” Fisher said. “It’s not your imagination.”
While the brain is made up of hundreds of different systems that control everything from blinking to breathing to reading a Cover 2 defense, there are four primary areas that impact personality, Fisher said. The one most involved in love — and, perhaps, momentum — is the dopamine system. Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain that controls how we experience pleasure, and it’s closely correlated with things such as creativity, risk-taking, energy, focus and motivation.
Fisher is careful to distinguish between the process of falling in love with someone and what she calls “the aha moment” when that realization takes hold. Like momentum, arriving at a state of romantic love involves a litany of past experience — “but that’s different than the actual feeling,” she said. That feeling is caused by a dopamine surge in three areas of your brain (and it gets complicated from here).
The first is the ventral tegmental area, which controls energy, confidence and optimism. Dopamine is pumped from that “tiny factory” in the base of the brain, and suddenly you’re filled with a sense of certainty that your actions are the right ones. It also correlates with being more outgoing and communicative, which mirrors something Caldwell noted, too. In situations when momentum seems present, Caldwell said players tend to talk more. That’s the result of a suddenly energized VTA.
The second area is the nucleus accumbens, a little blob in the brain that’s often linked with addiction and instills a sense of joy or relief. Goodbye stress, hello momentum.
The last is the posterior hippocampus, part of the memory system, which reorganizes our thought processes to highlight this newfound insight about success and streamline access to it for later use.
Apply this logic to execution on a football field and the parallels are obvious: Success happens, the brain releases a hefty dose of dopamine, the person feels more confident and less anxious, and the brain shuffles things around to best replicate that success again. In other words, momentum.
Fisher’s explanation even helps identify the peculiar linguistic use of the term “momentum.”
Love, she said, isn’t an emotion. It’s a drive. That dopamine rush serves as a push — toward love, happiness, fulfillment or the end zone. It’s mass in motion.
“That brain area lies right next to the factory that orchestrates thirst and hunger,” Fisher said. “Thirst and hunger keep you alive; romantic love drives you to fall for a person and form a partnership and send your DNA into tomorrow.”
And momentum creates a thrust toward points or wins or a giant bedazzled chain.
It certainly seems as if we’ve arrived at an elegant solution.
“Frankly,” Fisher said, “I think it’s pretty easy.”
I want to believe, too, but I’m left with a few nagging questions. That dopamine rush might help explain a single basketball player getting hot from the 3-point line, but can the same brain chemistry be responsible for 11 players on the football field all finding momentum in unison? And even if the sensation is real, what about the second part of the equation? Why doesn’t the data show a correlation between the feeling of momentum and the results that follow?
It feels as if we’ve been through all this before, and oddly, that offers another possible explanation.
DR. ANNE CLEARY has a bit of advice she thinks will help this story.
“Just put something about déjà vu in the headline,” she tells me. “It’ll get a ton of clicks.”
Cleary should know. She’s a professor of cognitive psychology at Colorado State, and she’s been studying the phenomenon of déjà vu for nearly a decade. Her work might provide some insight toward understanding momentum, too. In both déjà vu and momentum, the vast majority of people swear they’ve experienced the sensation but no one can offer a succinct explanation for what it is.
“We don’t really know why déjà vu happens,” Cleary said, “but about two-thirds of people say they’ve experienced it. It’s often considered to be in a paranormal realm.”
Déjà vu — or the sensation that you’re reliving an experience — is often explained by theories about past lives or psychic abilities, but Cleary said there’s likely a far more common process at work.
“I think it’s very often tied to a real memory, just something you’re failing to identify or consciously call to mind,” Cleary said. “It’s reminding our brain of something, and we’re just not conjuring up what that situation is.”
Perhaps that’s the explanation for momentum, too. That feeling of invincibility might actually be our brains recalling past events — practice reps, previous games — in which execution was flawless, then (thanks, perhaps, to our posterior hippocampus) reorganizing our thought processes to make that execution more repeatable without us being consciously aware it’s happening. Instead, we simply get a sensation that something has changed for the better.
“It could be the same type of mechanisms, where people are recognizing it or detecting the pattern and can’t quite describe it,” Cleary said. “That might be why it seems like such a religious thing. That’s sort of what familiarity is, what déjà vu is. It’s a sensation, and you usually don’t have a reason. You just kind of know.”
Cleary doesn’t watch many sporting events, but she meets regularly with a group of fellow scientists to talk about déjà vu, and she mentioned this search for momentum at a recent get-together.
“The sports fans in the group were passionate in insisting that it’s a thing,” she said. “These are scientists. They had a lot of ideas.”
Dr. Fred McMahan, a computational neuropsychologist at the University of North Texas who studies gaming, thought momentum might show up in his research. He hooks players up to brain-computer interface devices and studies the neurological response to the gaming experience, adapting the game on the fly based on the user’s response. Success at a game typically increases linearly — the more experience a user has playing the game, the better he gets — but McMahon’s research also shows occasional peaks or valleys in performance, which he believes could be momentum at work.
The solution to leveling those peaks and valleys, McMahan said, is to simply put down the game controller and walk away for a bit. Your neural system returns to a default state, and when you return to the game, that momentum — good or bad — has disappeared. It’s why basketball coaches call a timeout amid a particularly bad run of defense or why football fans get so angry when a defense fakes an injury. But, McMahan wondered, are the brief intermissions in a sporting event enough to actually reset the brain?
This is where Dr. Joseph Neisser might have an answer. He’s an associate professor of philosophy at Grinnell College and a member of Clearly and McMahan’s deja vu group. He likened the idea of controlling bouts of momentum to Buddhist meditation, self-actualization through mindfulness.
“I’d just call it mental practice,” Neisser said, “but that’s probably not fun enough.”
So far, we’ve thought about momentum as either a description of past events or a predictor of future ones, but Neisser suggested it might actually be about being hyper-present in the moment. In any contest, people are in a nearly constant state of metacognition — Are things going well or poorly? — and that ongoing self-evaluation serves as a distraction from the task at hand. But when momentum is high — when the nucleus accumbens gets pumping — the assumption of future success allows everyone involved, from the QB to the fan in the stands, to be focused solely on the present moment.
There’s ample evidence of this in the way athletes prepare for competition, Neisser said. Mindfulness meditation has become common among athletes, while drugs like beta blockers used to calm the body are popular performance enhancers.
Is momentum real, or is it all in our heads? The answer to both might be yes.
When Manny Diaz was the football coach at Miami, I once asked him whether he believed in momentum, and he offered something akin to George Costanza’s definition of lying — it’s not fake if the players believe it.
Neisser said that’s as valid an explanation as any. To believe in an external force such as momentum is to give it power, and a mindful decision to separate past events from the current moment can help defuse momentum’s cascading effect. It’s a good way of understanding why coaches eagerly talk about gaining momentum for success, but during periods of struggle are quick to ask players to “have a short memory.”
Momentum might be sports’ biggest placebo.
MIKE LEACH SUGGESTED I run this theory past Malcolm Gladwell, who I’m certain has far better things to do than discuss momentum. I appreciate Leach’s optimism, but it’s actually his experience with pessimism that interests me.
If Kohlhausen’s bowl win was the apex of momentum’s impact, Leach’s Washington State team provided a possible nadir in 2019 when it blew a 32-point lead to woeful UCLA. At the time, the Cougars were ranked 19th in the country and UCLA was 0-3. Washington State jumped out to a 49-17 lead midway through the third quarter and was ready to rest its starters for the remainder of the game. But UCLA scored, then scored again, and again, and again. In less than 15 minutes of game time, UCLA turned its 32-point deficit into a 60-56 lead, ultimately winning 67-63.
So what happened?
“Negative momentum, I suppose,” Leach said. “It happens when, collectively, a group gets frustrated and it just disintegrates and doesn’t play within the range of what they’re capable of.”
If we believe in the existence of momentum, it stands to reason there must also be an anti-momentum. What’s fascinating, however, is positive momentum often feels fragile, while negative momentum can seem utterly insurmountable.
Turns out, this is a common problem with the placebo effect.
At the University of Maryland’s school of nursing, Dr. Luana Colloca studies the placebo effect as it relates to pain. She said it’s possible to “trick the brain” into lifting more weight or feeling less pain, but one of the most significant takeaways from her research is that negative perceptions are far more difficult to erase than positive ones.
“Our bodies are trained to remember negative events,” Colloca said. “It’s something more subconscious in our brain, that if we have a fear, a negative experience, it takes some work to have a positive experience.”
In experiments, Colloca said, she might have to expose subjects to four or five positive experiences before seeing a significant change in their negative perceptions, whereas a positive perception can be erased with just a few words. It’s the science behind the Ted Lasso approach to coaching, where any criticism should be offset by abundant optimism and praise.
Leach said the key to halting negative momentum is to fall back on practice habits and focus on individual plays rather than the larger context of the game, but Colloca said there’s likely little a coach or player can do to simply shake off a string of bad experiences.
“It doesn’t work like that,” she said. “Negative experience, no matter what we tell them, the negative is so strong, much more than any positive experience.”
Perhaps our understanding of momentum says something deeper about humanity. We are all pessimists by nature, assured that our successes are fleeting and our failures are innate.
That actually might be a good topic for a Malcolm Gladwell book.
IF WE’RE TO believe momentum is real (at least as real as déjà vu or the placebo effect) and its impact is perceived as positive, it begs a serious question for coaches and athletes: Can momentum be purposefully conjured, or must it happen organically, delivered by the whims of fate?
I’d posed this question to Dr. Helen Fisher, the love expert, and though she didn’t have a firm answer, but wondered if it might be akin to an actor summoning emotions for a scene.
“Good actors can make themselves cry, right?” Fisher said. “They think of something really sad and can conjure up crying. You can fake laughter. You can fake anger.”
That’s something momentum-believer and actor Jeff Garlin has done on shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” but he’s not buying the parallels.
“An actor can create the illusion of momentum, but he cannot create momentum because it’s a chemical reaction,” Garlin said. “[Momentum] makes no sense. There’s no logic behind it. It’s magic.”
But magic, after all, is an illusion, not actual sorcery. It’s not real. I think I’ve got Garlin cornered, but he has a trump card: Steve Bartman.
Garlin and I are both diehard Chicago Cubs fans, so he knows the story well. The Cubs were up 3-0 in the top of the eighth of Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series when Luis Castillo of the then-Florida Marlins hit a fly ball down the left-field line. Bartman, a Cubs fan sitting in the first row of the stands, reached up and knocked the ball away from Cubs outfielder Moises Alou. Instead of hitting into the second out of the inning, Castillo walked, and while the home team still had a lead in the game and the series, every Cubs fan on the planet instantly knew it was over. The Marlins had momentum, and the Cubs had 100 years of miserable history. There are no stats or analytics or deep meditation methods that can overcome that combination.
“Momentum was not caused by Bartman. It was not caused by Moises Alou. There were so many steps along the way,” Garlin said. “Momentum to me is like dominoes, where one leads to the next, and the No. 1 thing that existed was the stress and anxiety of, how will the Cubs blow this?”
Garlin sees parallels in performing at comedy clubs.
“There are rhythms — momentum — that is necessary for me to have a great set,” Garlin said. “I say something, it gets a laugh, and it builds and it builds and I can have a pretty magical set.”
But that magic is also at the mercy of the audience and all the expectations and experiences the people bring with them. It’s not that momentum — or a hot set — is entirely arbitrary, but all those actions that preceded it are so tangled and incomprehensible as to often feel essentially random.
A week ago, Garlin said, he did two shows in Irvine, California. The first one, great audience. He was fine, but the crowd loved him. The late show, folks were perhaps worn out, and while Garlin thought he performed far better than in the earlier set, the response was a big bowl of meh.
“That’s when you go to your game plan,” Garlin said. “You follow your plays. You stick to your plan. I go to my craft. There is no artistry. I don’t have a good time, but they don’t know I’m not having a good time.”
This mirrors what everyone from the neuroscientist to the priest to Leach suggested. Momentum is doing rehearsed actions with ease, and halting negative momentum requires a deeper focus on executing the stuff you’ve already practiced over and over.
Perhaps this is why momentum is so easy for all of us to relate to, even if we’ve never suited up for a playoff game or taken a shot in the NCAA tournament. We all experience our own versions of it in our daily lives, whether it be on stage telling jokes or in front of a laptop writing an increasingly confounding story about momentum.
WHERE DOES THIS leave us? Are we any closer to establishing, once and for all, that momentum is real? I’m actually less certain now that I even understand what “real” means. Perhaps we’re all living in some advanced computer simulation and momentum is just a glitch in the matrix. That would help explain the ACC Coastal.
I take some solace in knowing I’m not the first to lose this battle, and ironically, it’s Gladwell who offers a reminder. In his 2013 book “David and Goliath,” Gladwell recounts the brilliance of cognitive psychologist Amos Tversky, quoting colleague Adam Alter’s ad hoc intelligence test: “The faster you realized Tversky was smarter than you, the smarter you were.”
In other words, Tversky may well have been the smartest guy on the planet, and even he couldn’t solve the problem of momentum.
Tversky was renowned for his work on cognitive biases, and he believed the notion of momentum in sports — a “hot hand,” as he called it — was illusory. It stemmed, he surmised, from humanity’s need to find patterns among randomness, the same selective memory that makes NC State’s win over North Carolina appear more significant than all those games that didn’t shock the world.
Tversky was certain momentum didn’t exist, even devising an experiment in which he compared shots in a basketball game to flips of a coin. It was all random, he found, and yet, for all his work, precious few friends passed the Tversky intelligence test when it came to momentum.
“I’ve been in a thousand arguments over this topic,” Tversky once said. “I’ve won them all, and I’ve convinced no one.”
If a MacArthur Fellow couldn’t convince the masses, what hope did I have?
Still, this quest was not without a few shreds of hope.
After hearing from so many avid believers, I’ve softened my stance on momentum a bit. Clearly something is happening in our brains, even if it doesn’t have much impact on what’s happening on the field. Perhaps what bothered me the most about Briles’ explanation back in 2019 is that momentum — this invisible force, accountable to no one, that shapes our future — removes agency from the coaches and athletes involved. It’s a red herring — real, but inconsequential; a distraction from the stuff that really matters.
Wes Durham, ESPN play-by-play man and son of longtime voice of North Carolina basketball Woody Durham, said the overuse of the term is a challenge for his profession. There might be a dozen better, more specific words, but none offers such an easy out. Momentum is whatever you want it to be: up for grabs, swinging on every possession, palpable in the last row of the stands or a figment of our collective imaginations.
“My dad would go crazy if I told you this,” Durham said, “but I probably use ‘momentum’ to describe too many things.”
And perhaps that’s the closest thing we’re likely to get to a victory.
Or who knows? Maybe this one small success will lead to another, then another, gathering steam and cascading outward, until the idea takes hold among the masses.
Surely there’s some word to describe what could happen from there.